March 23, 2012

The title of “greatest living director” has rarely had a smaller field of competition: most of the old guard have passed away in the last decade, and the younger group still have a lot to prove.

That’s why it’s easy to proclaim that one name is at or very near the top of the list right now: 75-year-old Akira Kurosawa. He is the man most responsible for bringing an awareness of Japanese cinema to the West (beginning with the international success of Rashomon in 1951) and also has the singular honor of having more plots ripped off than almost any other filmmaker (Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars).

He’s also a man who can’t get his films financed in his native country. Since 1970, when the failure of Dodeskaden prompted depression and a suicide attempt, all his films have been supported by outside means: Dersu Uzala (1975) received Soviet funding; Kagemusha (1980) was partially sponsored by George Lucas and Francis Coppola; and now Ran, the most expensive movie ever made in Japan, exists because of a French co-production with Japanese studios.

It was worth it. Ran, which Kurosawa has been working on for a decade, is the crown jewel of Kurosawa’s career, a startling, visionary masterwork.

It’s been described as a Japanese King Lear, and although Kurosawa has based much of his story on Shakespeare, it is not a simple translation. Kurosawa weaves Japanese history and legend into the tale, to form a completely new epic that owes little to any previous work.

For one thing, the Lear story has undergone a gender change. This time, a kingdom is divided among three sons rather than three daughters. The High Lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) feels it is time to end his rule, and gives each of his sons a castle and surrounding lands; he will keep a small retinue for himself, but the oldest son will be the head of the clan.

The youngest son questions the wisdom of this scheme, and his unyielding impertinence prompts the High Lord to banish him. Almost immediately, the two older sons betray their father, and the High Lord falls into wanderings and madness.

Kurosawa has spared nothing in the telling of this epic tale. The astounding costuming of the warring armies, with their colorful armor and horses; the howling typhoon that blows in during the High Lord’s descent into insanity; the burning of an enormous castle—these are mightily impressive, but not just for the sake of show. They’re a crucial part of the film’s enormous tapestry.

That castle is burned at the end of a spellbinding seven-or-eight-minute sequence that shows the storming of the building and the demolition of the small group of defenders. It is entirely silent except for Toru Takemitsu’s superb music, and it is a sequence of such power that it will be talked about for years to come.

The word Ran means “chaos” or “turmoil,” and while that may describe the events of Kurosawa’s tragic story, it has nothing to do with the director’s powers of expression. Finally, 1985 has brought us a truly great film.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Thinking about this movie brings up the question: how often will we see a movie like this again, featuring the actual burning of an actual castle, actual casts of thousands, all captured on film rather than digital? Because however much you might value the small indie, this is why movies were invented.